Panel rejects bipartisan redistricting bill

Published 8:21 am Wednesday, March 10, 2010

RICHMOND—A House panel has killed a bill to have a bipartisan commission – instead of politicians – redraw political districts after this year’s census.

Senate Bill 173 would have created a seven-member, bipartisan commission to redraw the districts for the Virginia House of Delegates, Virginia Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill unanimously passed the Senate but was tabled last week by a subcommittee of the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

Every 10 years, using the latest census data, state legislatures must redraw voting districts to ensure they have approximately equal populations. The next redistricting will be in 2011.

Typically, members of the General Assembly’s majority party try to draw lines that will get them the most votes. This year, the Virginia House of Delegates is ruled by Republicans and the Senate is ruled by Democrats. As a result, Democratic Sen. Creigh Deeds predicts that the redistricting process will “get ugly.”

So Deeds, who represents Senate District 25 in the western part of the state, sponsored SB 173, called the Bipartisan Redistricting Commission Act.

Under the bill, the leaders of the House, the Senate and the two major political parties would appoint six members of the commission. Those six then would name a seventh member to serve as chairman.

The commission, with input from a 12-member citizens advisory board, would draw political boundaries without “consideration for the impact on incumbent legislators, members of Congress, or known candidates for office.”

“No district shall be drawn to promote, or for the purpose of favoring, the interests of a political party,” the bill said.

Deeds has introduced the bill for the past seven years. He said he was disappointed to see it fail, but he believes it eventually will pass.

In his opinion, Deeds said, the bill failed because it would allow constituents to pick their politicians instead of the other way around.

“Power once achieved is a difficult thing to give up,” Deeds said. “People in power want to keep it. Bills like this retract from that power. I think that this is a bill would empower people and make government more open and more responsive, and that’s a good thing.”

Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who defeated Deeds in the gubernatorial race in November, has received criticism in the press for not sending someone to support SB 173.

McDonnell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that he had mixed feelings on the matter. According to the newspaper, McDonnell said, “Even with a citizen panel, people bring their personal biases … If the legislature does it, the process should be more open.”

In a statement to Capital News Service on Friday, McDonnell’s press secretary, Stacey Johnson, said the governor is still committed to bipartisan redistricting.

“The Governor has made his position on redistricting clear. He is committed to increasing public participation and making the entire process more transparent and accessible,” Johnson said.

“Should no action be taken by the General Assembly at anytime between now and the beginning of redistricting, the Governor will immediately move forward with his commitment to form a bipartisan citizen commission that will ensure public involvement in the process.”